Perversions of Sexuality: Same-Sex Sexuality in Paul’s Teaching



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Perversions of Sexuality:

Same-Sex Sexuality in Paul’s Teaching

Dr Jim Harrison, Wesley Institute, Semester 1, 2008

Ministering to the Sexually Broken Intensive, Golden Grove, Newtown

For discussion of homosexuality in the ancient world:

1. K.J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (London 1978).

2. W. Stegemann, 'Paul and the Sexual Mentality of His World', Biblical Theology Bulletin 23 (1993), pp.161-166.

3. B.J. Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago and London 1996).

4. T.K. Hubbard (ed.), Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California, 2003).*

5. M. Johnston and T. Ryan (eds.), Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).

6. J. Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007).

* Source book of ancient documents


For authors who propose that a certain expression of homosexuality — that is, a non-compulsive version of homosexual relations — is a valid practice for Christians:

6. D.L. Balch, ‘Romans 1:24-27, Science, and Homosexuality’, Currents in Theology and Mission 25/6 (1998), 433-440.

7. B.J. Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago and London 1996).

8. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago 1980).

9. L.W. Countryman, Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today (Philadelphia 1988), pp.104-123.

10. V.P. Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues (Abingdon 1979), pp.52-83.

11. L. Scanzoni and V.R. Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbour? (San Francisco 1978).

12. R. Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia 1983).


For authors who argue that homosexuality is not compatible with Christian practice:

13. D.E. Malick, 'The Condemnation of Homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27', Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (1993), pp.327-340.

14. D.E. Malick, 'The Condemnation of Homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9', Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (1993), pp.479-492.

15. P.M. Ukleja, 'The Bible and Homosexuality Part 2: Homosexuality in the New Testament', Bibliotheca Sacra 140 (1983), pp.350-358.


1. A General Paper on the Current Ecclesiastical Context
The task of the biblical exegete is to situate the biblical texts in their original context (literary, historical, and theological) and to explain what the biblical text is saying to its original audience within its cultural and social world. After that task has been completed, we are well placed to consider what the biblical texts are saying to our culture, with its different assumptions, ideologies, principles of categorisation, and so on. The issue of how we interpret the ancient biblical texts in our twenty-first century context poses a series of important questions.

  • Do the biblical texts challenge and critique our cultural assumptions and practices in various areas (e.g. Graeco-Roman ‘boasting’ culture)?

  • Do the biblical texts endorse various aspects of modern culture theologically and ethically (e.g. the rise of modern ecological movement)?

  • Are some practices issues of indifference to the texts (e.g. whether we play cricket or croquet)?

  • Do the biblical texts provide us with a ‘redemptive-movement’ that allows us to see the ‘liberating spirit’ behind their teaching and which allows us to pursue the implications of that ‘redemptive’ perspective in our own culture (e.g. the ministry of women in the church and the emancipation of slaves, notwithstanding the patriarchal and slave-owning culture of which the biblical authors were part)?

The ramifications of same-sex relations within the church still continues to divide the UCA and the Anglican wordwide communion, among others. This has been a painful debate for both sides and continues to leave the institutional church divided and uncertain regarding its future. However, we cannot bypass the challenge of responsibly exegeting the biblical texts and addressing the interpretative issues. We have no other faith documents that bind us as authoritatively as the scriptural texts. This means that there will be inevitably collisions and divisions over the authority and interpretation of the Scriptures among believers and between the church and society. Witness the contest between Augustine and the monk Pelagius, or Augustine’s exaltation of the heavenly city of God over against the ‘eternal’ earthly city of Rome, or the collisions between Luther and medieval Catholicism, or between Bonhoeffer and the Nazi state.

I intend to comment exegetically on the biblical texts on same sex relations and address how they fit within the framework of the hermeneutical questions above. Finally, I shall make a few pastoral observations regarding our current ecclesiastical situation.

In Genesis 19:4ff (cf. Judg. 19:22) depicts the judgement that came upon the city of Sodom when the men of Sodom demanded from Lot that they ‘know’ (Gen 19:5: yadha) his visiting guests. Scholars (e.g. Bailey, Boswell, Countryman) have argued that this text condemns either the violation of eastern hospitality laws or the use of violence and does not criticise same sex relations. Bailey has also argued the Hebrew word for ‘know’ (yadha) in verse 5 means ‘get acquainted with’ rather than ‘have same-sex relations’.

However, Lot’s appalling counter-offer of his daughters to the men of Sodom in verse 8 (‘who have not known any man’) can only mean that yadha refers to sexual relations, homosexual and heterosexual. Thus one of the lifestyles for which Sodom was condemned was sexual sin, as later Jewish writers (Philo, de Abr. 26. 134-136; Josephus, Ant. 1.194-195, 200; Gen. Rabbah 1.7; Test. Naph 3.4-5 [‘changed the order of their nature’]) and Christian writers (Jude 7; 2 Peter 2:4, 6-8) made clear.

But Sodom is condemned for a much wider range of sin in the Old Testament (e.g. pride, gluttony, prosperity: Ezek 16:49-50; cf. Ecclesiasticus 16:8) and in the Jewish writings (e.g. inhospitality: e.g. Wisd. 10.8; fornication and uncleanness: Jub 16:5-6; 20:5-6). In other words, although the homosexual sin of some inhabitants is judged, so is a wide range of common heterosexual sins. Thus the scriptures encourage us all to take stock of our own sin before we think about casting the first stone.

In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 it is stated that males are not to lie with males as with a female because it is an ‘abomination’. In Leviticus 20.13 the death penalty is invoked, as was the case with adulterers in vv.10-12. At the outset, it needs to be said from a New Testament perspective that Jesus’ overturning of the death penalty by stoning being applied to adulterers in John 8:7-9 must also apply to those who have same-sex partners (‘the redemptive-movement’).

Why was homosexuality condemned in the ‘Holiness code’ of Leviticus? Some scholars (e.g. Boswell, Countryman) argue that this only warns the Israelites against ceremonial impurity than anything sexually immoral. Bailey claims that the text is specifically directed at the male temple prostitutes in the Canaanite cults (e.g. Deut 23:18; e.g. the qedeshim [‘male prostitutes’] at Ugarit) and does not generally condemn same-sex relations.

But, in its context, Leviticus 18:22 not only deals with ‘purity’ laws that distinguished Israel from the surrounding nations (e.g. v.19: menstruation), but also spells out the boundaries that were divinely imposed at creation. Leviticus 18 highlights the appropriate creation boundaries of Genesis 1-2: namely, we must not transgress the sexual boundaries between humans and animals (v.22), between parents and children (vv.6-18), between people of the different gender (v.20), and between people of the same gender (v.22). We are made, male and female, in the image of God (Gen 1:27). The only divinely sanctioned sexual relationships are those within heterosexual marriage (Gen 2:24). The reference to offering children to Molech in v.21 does not refer to male temple prostitution (v.22). Rather verse 21 warns against the offering of children to Molech that may be born from the incest and adultery mentioned previously (vv.6-20) or from heterosexual relations within marriage more generally.

Elsewhere, however, the male cultic prostitution associated with Baal worship was also strongly opposed by Kings Rehoboam, Jeroboam, Jehoshaphat, and Josiah (1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7).

In an ancient near eastern context, therefore, the Old Testament writers oppose the practise of same sex relations, as did Hittite and Assyrian law. In the case of the Egyptians, there were same sex relations among the gods and human beings, while the Canaanites endorsed male and female cultic prostitution. Both creation and covenant theology underpins Israel’s objections to same-sex relations, though God’s judgement extends to a much wider spectrum of behaviour and attitudes.

In Romans 1:24-32 Paul is denouncing Gentile ungodliness as a prelude to his assault on Jewish culpability in front of God, with a view to establishing the fallen state of humanity generally. Unusually for the Scriptures, Paul specifies both female (vv.26ff) and male homoerotic behaviour (vv.27ff) as instances of sinful behaviour, among many others (vv.29-31).

Paul sees behind this lifestyle two fundamental mistakes that explains why God gave those practising same-sex relations over to their desires (vv.24, 26, 28). First, the lifestyle is an expression of idolatry (vv. 22-23, 25) because it blurs the boundaries of separation that God has established in his creation. Humankind, over against the rest of the animal world, has been created male and female in the image of God. Paul’s allusion to Genesis 1 in verse 23 (Gen 1:26) underscores that he is dealing with inviolable creation boundaries. Second, Paul sees this lifestyle as contrary to nature (v.26: para phusin) over against natural relations (v.26: phusikos). Once again the doctrine of creation in Genesis 1-2 is prominent in Paul’s thought: same-sex relations are contrary to the original intention of the Creator as expressed in the boundaries of creation. This is not mere Jewish prejudice on Paul’s part, as some argue. The later Stoics from the first-century onwards also saw same-sex relations as against Nature.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul provides a sample of the type of behaviour that excludes people from the end-time Kingdom of God. This ranges from a range of sexual sin (v.9: fornicators, adulterers, malakoi, arsenokoitoi) to a spread of religious and social sin (v.9: idolatry; v.10: thieves, greedy ones, drunkards, swindlers, revilers). The two words that Paul uses of same sex-relations are malakoi and arsenokoitoi. I hold to the majority view which argues that malakoi refers to males who are penetrated by males (the passive partner), whereas arsenokoitoi (cf. 1 Tim 1:10) refers to males who sexually penetrate males (the active partner). In other words, Paul condemns the entire range of same sex-relations, not just one expression of it. Boswell’s attempt to deny that the terms refer to same-sex relations is unsuccessful because arsenokoitoi clearly derives from the Greek OT translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Scroggs’ assertion that Paul is only criticising ‘pederastry’ (sex with a boy) in using malakoi overlooks the fact that there was a specific Greek word for describing the ‘pederest’: namely, paiderastes. Significantly, Paul does not use the word!

Instead, Paul uses two other terms for same sex relations, one active, one passive. Why? Under Roman law, a citizen could be penalised if he penetrated free-born Roman citizens: but a slave — who was not a citizen and had no rights — could be penetrated with no legal consequences at all. At the Roman colony of Corinth, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God does not tolerate the double standard: both the active and passive role in same-sex relations, whether exploitive or consensual, was wrong.

It might be asserted that Paul naïve about sexuality, not having the sophisticated understanding of same sex relations that we now have through sociological studies, scientific research, and the experimental evidence of psychiatry. But the ancient world also had its biological (or inborn preference), medical, environmental and astrological explanations of same sex relations.

Also, it might be argued that Paul and the ancient world only knew of exploitative pedastery and non-loving adult same-sex relations. Again this is not so, as many ancient texts and moving iconographic evidence demonstrate.

What is clear that Paul is consistently negative about homosexual practice. Although Paul lives in a patriarchal world and is aware of its prejudices, the redemptive movement of Paul’s writings highlights nonetheless a new trajectory of status and significance for women socially and theologically in Christ. Similarly, while householders own slaves in Paul’s house churches, Paul nonetheless defines the new status of slaves in Christ in bold and unforgettable ways. In the case of same-sex relations, the Scriptures do not offer a new redemptive movement in the same manner: instead the Scriptures continually reinforce the traditional creation and covenantal boundaries and offer the redemptive trajectory of abandoning same sex relations for new life in Christ (‘such were some of you’: 1 Cor 6:11).

Where does this leave us in a UCA and Anglican context overseas?



  1. Sadly, many of historic evangelical persuasion will continue to leave the church or not join it. The church may well continue to decline in numbers.

  2. Presbyteries and dioceses must consider the biblical standards of leadership as the binding authority as much as pastoral competence in deciding the suitability of candidates for ordination.

  3. There needs to be grace, humility and Christ’s non-judgemental compassion exercised towards those struggling with sexual temptation, whether same-sex or heterosexual. Christ’s befriending of the marginalised is our model here.

  4. There needs to be a much deeper expression of koinonia in the church. The superficiality of male relationships within our churches means that those who desire deeper authentic male friendships often go elsewhere for a more satisfying experience.

  5. There is a ‘redemptive movement’ within the Scriptures for those who struggle with same-sex desires and who want to minister: it is the experience of fullness in Christ with celibacy as gift for service in the Kingdom (1 Cor 7:7).



2. Exegetical note: Romans 1:24-27



Verses 24-27

What was the attitude to homosexuality in antiquity? The attitude of the Old Testament is plain enough. Genesis 1:28-30 makes it clear that the male / female distinction is fundamental to being made in the ‘image of God’. We were created for heterosexual relationships (Gen 2:24; Prov 5:15-20; cf. 1 Cor 6:15-17, 19-20). Homosexuality, where mentioned, is always condemned (Genesis 19; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; cf. Philo, On Abraham 26.133-136). Josephus (Against Apion II.119) speaks of Jewish abhorrence of intercourse between males and points to the death penalty for those who engage in the practice.

In the case of Graeco-Roman culture, homosexual love — especially pederasty (the love of a man for a boy) — was very common (Extract 3.1). There were magical spells to attract lesbian lovers. The satirist Pseudo-Lucian parodies lesbian relationships, on the basis of the moral unacceptability of pederasty (Extract 3.4). By contrast, the famous female poet, Sapho of Lesbos (7th / 6th cent. BC) wrote passionate poems about female homoeroticism (Extract 3.3). Ancient moralists such as Plutarch drew an analogy between uncontrolled sexual desire and the insatiable desire for food (Extract 3.5). Intemperance and luxury, Plutarch says, weakens both the senses and the soul and results in a morally depraved lifestyle for its devotees. In Plutarch’s view, vegetarianism was a much better moral option (cf. 1 Cor 8 and 10; Rom 14:1-6). Finally, red and black Attic figure vases depicted scenes of homosexual and lesbian relationships. For extra background material, see the works of B.J. Brooten, op. cit.; K.J. Dover, op. cit.; D.L. Balch, art. cit.; W. Stegemann, art. cit. See Select Extracts 2.1-2.5

From the evidence of Romans and 1 Corinthians, what is Paul’s attitude to homosexuality? It is clear that God’s wrath is directed towards homosexual and lesbian sin with the same impartiality that it is directed towards all other sin, no matter how insignificant in society’s eyes that sin may be. Paul reverts to the Genesis creation account in vv.20, 23 to establish his point (Psalm 8; Genesis 1:20-30). Paul is not dealing here with ancient (or modern) views about compulsive sexual behaviour. Instead, he is dealing with how God has made us. According to Paul, even homosexual and lesbian behaviour that is said to be not compulsive — i.e. it is selfless, self-controlled and non-exploitive, being directed to the sexual pleasure of an equal — would still lie outside of God’s creation mandate, as much as compulsive sexual sin. Paul thought is not indebted to the ‘psychological’ theories of contemporary popular philosophers and moralists (e.g. Select Extract 3.5). Rather it comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the doctrine of creation. The fact that God made humans as ‘male and female’ in the image of God should not be ignored by blurring creational gender distinctions through sexual sin. This applies as much to heterosexual sin (fornication, adultery) as homoerotic sin because the expression of sex is intended for heterosexual married relationships (Gen 2:24; Prov 5:15-20; 1 Cor 6:12-20).

What is the meaning of ‘natural’ (phusikos), ‘unnatural’ (para phusin) in v.26? It refers to one’s constitution as given by the Creator. The Stoics spoke of ‘nature’ as being moral and purposeful: thus homosexuality, in their view, is not kata phusin (‘according to nature’). See Extract 3.2. The irony of God’s judgement towards sexual sin is that God gives people up to the expression of their homoerotic lusts (vv.24, 26, 28), reserving them—along with every other sinner—till the outpouring of his eschatological judgement. Note how careful Paul is to emphasise that God’s judgement falls on a spectrum of sin, which everyone is guilty of (vv.28ff). Further, Paul’s argument is designed to establish the sinfulness of all (Rom 3:19-20) and is not intended to encourage homophobia. Notwithstanding, the condemnation of homosexuality in general is in view. The mention of lesbian sin (vv.26ff) undermines the idea that Paul is only criticising exploitative pederasty — typical of male relationships in antiquity — as opposed to (modern) loving non-exploitative homosexual relationships.

Finally, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul spells out the fact that God has redeemed people who were formerly homosexual and lesbian sinners. That homosexuality in general is in view is demonstrated by the fact that Paul uses two words, ‘male prostitutes’ (malakoi) and ‘homosexual offenders’ (arsenokoitai), to describe the range of homosexual behaviour. But, once again, God’s judgement falls on a spectrum of sin (vv.9-10). Further, change was possible for the Corinthians (v.11a) through God’s offer of hope and change (v.11b).




3. The ancients on homosexual and lesbian relationships
3.1. Seneca, On Master and Slave 7.
(The slave who serves the wine) must dress like a woman and wrestle with his advancing years; he cannot get away from his boyhood; ... he is kept beardless by having his hair smoothed away or plucked out by the roots, and he must remain awake throughout the night, dividing his time between his master's drunkenness and lust.
3.2. Plutuach, The Dialogue on Love 751C.
... if union contrary to nature with males does not destroy nor curtail a lover's tenderness, it stand to reason that the love between men and women, being normal and natural, will be conducive to friendship developing in due course from favour ...
3.3. Sapho, Hymn to Aphrodite Fragment 1.
For if she runs away, soon she shall run after,

if she shuns gifts, she shall give,

if she does not love you, soon she shall even

against her will ...


3.4. Pseudo-Lucian, Erôtes 28. Lucian forcefully argues that if we endorse pederasty, we are therefore bound to condone lesbian relationships.
But, if males find intercourse with males acceptable, henceforth let women too love each other. Come now, epoch of the future, legislator of strange pleasures, devise fresh paths for male lusts, but bestow the same privilege upon women, and let them have intercourse with the same privilege upon women, and let them have intercourse with each other just as men do. Let them strap to themselves cunningly contrived instruments of licentiousness, those mysterious monstrosities devoid of seed, and let woman lie with woman as does man. Let tribadic licentiousness — that word seldom heard, which I feel ashamed even to utter — freely parade itself, and let our women’s chambers emulate Philainis, disgracing themselves with androgynous amours. And how much better that a woman should force her way into the province of male luxury than that the nobility of the male sex should become effeminate and play the part of a woman!
3.5. Plutarch, The Eating of Flesh I and II (Moralia 996C).
Then, just as with women (cf. Rom 1:26) who are insatiable in seeking pleasure, their lust tries everything, goes astray (planomenos, ‘errs’) and explores the gamut of profligacy until at last it ends in unspeakable practises; so intemperance in eating passes beyond the necessary ends of nature (to physikon) and resorts to cruelty and lawlessness (paranomia) to give variety to appetite (orexin; cf. Rom 1:27). For it is in their own company that organs of sense are infected and won over and become licentious when they do not keep to natural standards. Just so the art of hearing has fallen sick, corrupting (diephtheiren) musical taste. From this [music] our luxury and debauchery conceives a desire for shameful caresses and effeminate titillations ... Just so intemperate intercourse follows a lawless meal, inharmonious music follows a shameful debauch, barbarous spectacles follow shameless songs and sounds, insensitivity and cruelty towards human kind follow savage exhibitions in the theatre [i.e. the Roman gladiatorial games].



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